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picThe Switchroom - It’s on the top floor of the telephone exchange, a large rectangular room accessed by double doors from the stairwell and lift shaft at one end of the building. These are the days pre Subscriber Trunk Dialling when all non-local telephone calls were manually connected and operator controlled, a 24 hour 365 days a year service requiring a large amount of manpower to resource. Inside the switch-room on the open plan parquet tiled floorspace stand 45 to 50 manual telephone switchboards, perhaps six feet tall arranged side by side along both long walls with a semi circular section at the far end, and a three feet gap between the back of the boards and the wall for maintenance purposes. The vertical face of each switchboard position filled from top to bottom with appropriately labelled jack and lamp strips corresponding to local, junction and trunk network circuits, it’s the morning busy period and lamps are flashing insistently waiting to be answered. This is the communications gateway to all parts of the country and the rest of the world by which all calls originating in the area served by the switch-room are connected, using up to twenty pairs of plug ended and pulley weighted cords with associated control keys and lamps for call supervision, arranged from left to right across the horizontal shelf section of each position. Individual circuits to strategic switching centres with exotic names like Manchester Pioneer and Guardian, Birmingham Newhall, London Faraday, Liverpool Trident, Leeds Westgate and others in Preston, Glasgow and Edinburgh. picEach trunk and junction route with a number of circuits determined by its forecast traffic, repeated at intervals around the room to allow access from every position. Completing the picture are a fixed angle mounted dial and a compact reference file containing network routing digits and charging information for every national number group code in the country and abroad. “Number please?” is the familiar greeting echoing around the room as operators answer calls, and “trying to connect you” as she obtains routing and charging information from her index file for the destination exchange, carries out a “click” test in the specified route to find a free circuit, plugs in the outgoing cord and dials the routing digits and local number required. Staying on-line to ensure ring tone is heard from the distant end, the operator then leaves the caller to wait for an answer, using the supervisory lamps to monitor call status, whilst making out a ticket recording details. Maturing calls prompt the operator to enter the start time on the ticket and continue supervisory monitoring, the call being disconnected and finish time recorded when both parties hang up. Calls unanswered after a few minutes without the caller hanging up causes intervention by the operator advising the caller to try again later, in this case call timings are left blank and don’t incur charges. At busy periods like this the boards are almost fully manned with highly trained young female operators chosen from the best local schools overseen by the chief supervisor and her team of assistant supervisors like shepherdesses, always alert, watching over their flock, reminding the operators every now and then picthat there is no time to chat when calls are waiting to be answered. The supervisors are not only responsible for the efficient operation of the switch-room, they also seem to have taken on the role of guardians of their charges’ welfare and virtue and the switch-room has something of an air of a convent about it, a place were males are merely tolerated and admitted reluctantly and then only for short periods. At times of peak traffic connecting cords are stretched across the face of adjacent switchboards, interwoven like the warp and weft of an old Lancashire loom, operators appearing to follow a colourful complicated knitting pattern. Those experiencing equipment faults, most often inoperative lamps or noisy cords, record details on a pink docket for attention by technicians at their next visit and have the offending item taken out of service. There will always be a queue of eager young technicians waiting to be asked to attend to a batch of pink dockets, each knowing that they will have to be on their best behaviour to be allowed into the hallowed inner sanctum of the switch-room with its unique perfumed atmosphere in stark contrast to the rather oily aroma in the electromechanical equipment rooms on the floors below. After filtering the dockets to assess the work required, the lucky person chosen will always enter the switch-room and introduce himself to the supervisor on duty and, if the work requires it ask her to take particular switchboard positions out of service. Replacement of faulty lamps though is relatively easy and done with minimum disruption without disturbing the operator, replacement of cords and attention to other faults is done from the rear of the boards by removing the back panel. picWhilst in the switch-room young technicians will hope to catch the eye of their favourite operator and raise an approving smile, the more determined individual sometimes risking a lifetime ban by removing a back panel in the hope of being able to talk to the operator through the holes in the jack strips hopefully without the supervisor noticing. Penalties can be severe if supervisors spot technicians breaking the strict rules of purdah, distracting operators from their duties or even worse making amorous overtures to the girls whilst making, or more likely pretending to make repairs. It is far safer to engage operators in conversation remotely by ringing and requesting a circuit testing ring-back, many technicians met their future wives in this way, circumventing any possible interference from switch-room supervisors. Looking at the situation from a modern perspective it is difficult to imagine how the enormous amount of clerical activity involved in processing call records to produce customer bills compares with today’s computerised systems. In the days before hand held or desk top calculators manual call records were sent off site to a large central office where they had state of the art Comptometer or Sumlock machines to process the data, adding data from directly dialled calls recorded automatically using electro-mechanical meters obtained via a further rather laborious manual meter reading process.


Palfreyman April 2016